THE baby is ready to grow up. Celtic striker Amido Balde was affectionately described as a new-born in football terms by his manager, Neil Lennon, after the clinical finish as a substitute that earned his side a 2-1 win away to Partick Thistle on Sunday.
The 22-year-old Portuguese striker has been ever-so-gently eased in by Lennon since his £1.5 million summer move from Vitoria Guimaraes. It has cast doubts on his potential, but enough glimpses of his net-finding ability – he netted away to Kilmarnock and in a glamour Dublin friendly against Liverpool – have now been witnessed to suggest his game time could be stepped up.
Just in time, indeed, for a pivotal Champions League fixture against Ajax in Amsterdam next Wednesday. One start and eight appearances from the bench can hardly give Balde confidence of being involved in the tie, but his physicality and fizzing running power set him apart from the other Celtic strikers, and certainly allowed him to show up better than other first-season frontline rival Teemu Pukki at the weekend. Balde is certainly not discounting himself for the Ajax assignment.
“I could play,” he said, through an interpreter at the club’s Lennoxtown training ground yesterday, with language a barrier he has still to conquer. “I never doubt myself – that’s why I am here, working every single day. I am not one of those players who is going to give up easily. I am motivated here – I want to play against Barca, I want to play against Ajax next week.” On the bench for the first round of Champions League matches, those watching experiences have given him a taste for this exalted level of football. “I was paying a lot of attention in those matches because if you are given the chance to come on, you have to fit into the game immediately. To do that, you have to be very focused on the bench.”
Balde’s struggles in pre-season had many all-too-ready to write him off as another misfit in the mould of Mohamed Bangura. He is already two goals to the good of the Sierre Leone striker currently on loan at Elfsborg, and the Thistle clincher has caused his potential to be re-assessed. “[The weekend winner] was obviously very important for myself and for the club. It is always important for me to score goals, but I am still new here and I am still eager to learn and to work. I am always learning from watching Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras. Even when I am not playing, and sitting on the bench, I am watching them and taking note of their movement and how they play the game.”
If Balde hasn’t had the easiest introduction, it has been no less profitable than the early months a certain Victor Wanyama spent in Scotland. It wasn’t until November of his first season that the Kenyan midfielder forced his way into Lennon’s thoughts for senior outings, but that didn’t prevent the youngster earning Celtic £12.5m from Southamptoon within two years of his £950,000 move from Belgian club Beerschot. Balde may not have been destined for the same trajectory but he isn’t becoming restless at his little impact thus far in his Celtic career.
“I know it wasn’t easy for me at first, having to adapt to coming here,” he said. “I know Celtic want a forward who will score goals, but I am calm and I am prepared to take my time because I know the goals will come. It’s all about learning little by little at this stage.If there is one thing I’ve got more than anything else, it is patience. I’m not one of those players who will get really sad if I am not playing every week. I’m eager to work and to learn. That’s why I am here.”
He accepts that with Lennon’s description of him as a baby – one he said the club’s support were about to see “a lot more of” as he talked up the player, mind – he will now have to zip through walking steps and be sharply up and running. “But I am positive the manager knows me well and is aware of any difficulties I might have. I am sure I will grow quickly and I am not going to let the manager down. I know Celtic is a huge club, you can see that from how we play in the Champions League.
“It’s always good to receive praise from the manager but, in general, I am feeling very good here. Celtic is a very together family and that motivates me to work even harder to make an impression and to play more. I am happy to have scored on Sunday but I won’t be resting on my laurels because I’ve done that. The thing is to keep working and to keep getting better. The job is not done just because I scored at the weekend.”